Faur, J. Homo Mysticus: A Guide to Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed (Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press: 1999) xiii + 272. *
If Faur's Golden Doves with Silver Dots: Semiotics and Textuality in Rabbinic Tradition (Bloomington, Indiana University Press: 1986) was a Jewish commentary on post-structuralist literary criticism, this book is a deeply studied commentary on Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed informed by post-structuralist concerns. In writing this book, Faur has realized the dream of every scholar of Jewish thought: to take on the master. Many write articles; only a few have the learning and courage to write a good book on Maimonides. Faur is to be congratulated on this effort which is a definite contribution to the field.
Rather than reinvent the wheel and summarize the ideas of Maimonides, a task that has been amply done before, Faur uses this book to comment on Maimonides' philosophy, following the order of ideas in the Guide. The key concept is Maimonides' stark dichotomy between the divine and the created. The created thinks anthropocentrically. It tries to know the mind of God. To do so, it uses mythical and, then, rational thinking. It analogizes from the human to the divine. The divine, however, is theocentric. Its thoughts cannot be known. Even its existence cannot be grasped. To begin to move toward the divine, requires a "progressive process of deanthropomorphization." It requires "apophasis," negating all human constructs until one reaches powerlessness and silence. "Homo mysticus is, first and foremost, a post-rational individual... [who] must transcend the realms of mythology and rationality and develop a new level of consciousness." To do this, he must use the theocentric, not the anthropocentric, perspective.
Part One deals with apophasis, the negating of positive knowledge. Beginning with the stunning passage in the Guide (1:59) where Maimonides quotes all the philosophers as teaching "We were illuminated by His splendor, but He is hidden from us by the might of His luminescence" and quotes from Psalms (4:5) "Speak up in your hearts upon your beds, and be silent; selah," Faur goes on to explicate the pardes, the "headings of chapters," the Heikalot, and even a passage in the New Testament -- all of which point to the fact that "there is no ontological affinity between Him and anything He created ... that there is no point of comparison between Him and anything else." Faur has not said anything new here, but he has said stated Maimonides' theological position with great clarity and linked it, in a new way, to rabbinic and modern texts.
Part Two deals with imagination. Imagination is the opposite of apophasis. It claims precisely to comprehend the divine in human terms, by analogy to human characteristics. It transfers meaning from the properly unknowable to the spuriously known. Adam's sin was in "knowing" he was naked, that is, in the change in his method of knowing from reason to imagination, the latter being represented by Eve and the snake. Imagination generates what modern literary critics and anthopologists would call "mythical thinking" and, when mythical thinking moves into the world of action, since it is not rooted in reason, it must find its ground in authority and violence. Imagination is, thus, political and not mystical. Theologically, imagination is a turning from the truth of the apophatic God. It is the work of homo absconditus, the person hiding from truth, and it renders God a deus absconditus, a God hidden from humanity by the plethora of images. The prophet, by contrast, sees God and creation from God's point of view. He knows that the speclaria that does not illuminate is imagination while the speclaria that does illuminate is reason. Again, it is Faur's clarity and his linking of Maimonidean thought with rabbinic and modern texts that is noteworthy.
Part Three deals with creation. Creatio ex nihilo is exactly what Maimonides had in mind precisely because it repudiates the ontological relationship between Creator and creation. Further, the creator of any object always has a deeper knowledge of its structure and function than someone who learns about it only by analyzing it. God's knowledge is that of the Creator. It is, however, a knowledge of all possibilities and probabilities; hence, it is indeterminate and humanity has free will. Keeping to the three-level analysis of knowledge -- imagination, reason, and revelation -- Maimonides, seeing no contradiction between the scriptural creatio ex nihilo and science, opted for creation over the theory of the eternity of the universe. Faur's section on necessity vs. will (111-15), particularly his introduction of the concept of probability in rabbinic and Maimonidean thought, is very good, though I believe my own analysis of this is clearer (see The Philosophic Questions and Answers of Hoter ben Shelomo [Leiden, E. J. Brill: 1981] 243, n. 7). Faur's identifying tarjih, the use of judgement when all options seem equally plausible (118-26), is also an excellent point.
Part Four (one part more than Maimonides envisioned) deals with the doctrine of man. (No attempt is made in either Maimonides or Faur to include the other half of the human race.) Human nature does not change. It is determined by "traces" left in the soul by history and culture; humankind has no control over these traces. Faur goes so far as to link them with the transmission of culture and with Jungian archetypes and the collective subconscious. The traces were, however, obliterated at Sinai in the moment of revelation, the poison of the snake -- imagination / sin -- thereby being destroyed. In the very same revelatory moment, a new, rational Torah given and new traces were generated. The commandments, then, have as their function to reenforce this shift from imagination to reason. Even Job, because he used his imagination and not reason, expected God to act according to the human understanding of justice; this was sinful. After his mystical illumination, he knew better. Through his suffering, as with all "testing," Job gained shaja´a / gebura, the psychological determination to pursue the rational. After mystical theophany comes a return to the real world. This is the role of the prophet, to provide theocentric guidance to society. The goal of mankind, then, is mystical illumination followed by a prophetic return to the world. Faur's explanation of traces and his interpretation of Job are particularly well done.
So what is "mystical illumination" (160-63)? What is "intellectual worship" (171-73)? What is at the top of Jacob's ladder such that the subsequent descent is prophecy (173-78)? Here, in my opinion, Faur has lost the thread of the argument with which he began the book: that, in addition to reason, there is a post-rational state of mystical, intellectualist illumination that flows from, and returns to, silence; that reason, too, is a handmaiden to the post-rational, that it is a path to that which is beyond intellectual worship. It is, then, the ineffable, apophatic moment of silence -- which is called ghabta (bliss), ´ishq / hesheq (passionate love), lidhdha (pleasure), and inqita´ (total devotion) -- that is the philosophic mystical center of Maimonidean thought. It is this moment of intellectualist mysticism that generates prophetic / rabbinic action. (For more on this, see my "Maimonides: Prayer, Worship, and Mysticism," Priére, Mystique et Judaisme, ed. R. Goetschel [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France] 89-106; reprinted in Appproaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, ed. D. Blumenthal [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988] 1-16; also available, with newer work on this subject, on my website <www.emory.edu/UDR/BLUMENTHAL> under "Articles.") Faur started in this direction but, in my opinion, did not go far enough.
Faur has analyzed and reformulated Maimonides so clearly and ernestly that one wonders, too, what his own opinions are on the basic concept of the unbridgability of the gap between Creator and created. Does Faur subscribe to the conviction that rabbinic thought, particularly in its liturgical and midrashic mode, is guilty of anthropocentric theologizing? Does Faur really class all of zoharic kabbala as mythical and mythological thinking, a product only of imagination? Is he willing to go as far as Maimonides and claim that even bibilical thought, insofar as it is anthropocentric in its mode of conceiving God and the world, is only metaphors and signs? Abraham Joshua Heschel, among many others, has argued forcefully for a "divine pathos," for a God characterized precisely by connection to, and concern for, God's creation. Further, who is to say that reason and intellect are the true "link" between God and man? Could one not reason that even reason is a projection onto the speclaria of the divine? Indeed, one might better argue that, if humans are created in God's image and not the other way around, then it is only by the study of the manifold characteristics of the human personality that one can come to any knowledge, no matter how limited by God's ultimate difference, of the divine. A book this good deserves an epilogue on this issue.
Faur's incomplete analysis of intellectualist mysticism (and some strange transcriptions of Arabic words) aside, Homo Mysticus: A Guide to Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed is a learned and passionate argument on behalf of Maimonides. It should become a staple of Maimonidean studies.
* Appeared in Review of Books in Religion and Theology, 7:5 (November 2000) 487-90.
return to head of document
return to index of Selected Book Reviews
David Blumenthal's HomePage